Sunday, January 25, 2015

When a soldier's vote was a loyalty test

Sgt. Wesley Knight, loyal Republican
Can you imagine a military unit off at war in which American soldiers care deeply about who is elected governor of their state? This brief letter from a sergeant from Londonderry, N.H., during the Civil War shows how much times and circumstances have changed. 

It was written the day after state election day in New Hampshire in 1863. In this blog I have written about this election from several angles, but this letter deals with a different question: How invested were the soldiers in the outcome?

The sergeant who wrote the letter was Wesley B. Knight of the 4th New Hampshire Volunteers. This regiment had arrived on the South Carolina coast in late 1861, moved on to Florida and returned to occupy Hilton Head six months before Knight wrote.

Knight, who was 28 years old at the time, was a Republican. At stake in the March 10, 1863, election was whether his party could hold the governor's office. Otherwise President Lincoln might have to deal with a peace-leaning Democratic governor. 

The candidates in New Hampshire were Joseph Gilmore, the Republican, a Concord railroad magnate; Ira Eastman, the Democrat, who favored making peace with the South; and Walter Harriman, a colonel running as a War Democrat to siphon off votes from Eastman. The only issues in the election were war policy and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had just taken effect.  

Note in Knight's letter the detail with which he reports the voting in his regiment. Also, his description of a fellow sergeant from Londonderry, 29-year-old Edward P. Moore, voting for a Democrat. In Knight's view Moore had changed. He was not simply expressing an opposing point of view. He was disloyal.

Beaufort. S.C.
Mar. 11th, 1863

Friend Clark,

As I was at leisure today I thought I would improve a few moments in writing you a few lines. My health is good at the present time & has been most of the time since I left N.H. the last time. The boys from L [Londonderry] are all well & enjoying themselves well and mostly contented but want this thing put through & have it finished up.

I suppose yesterday was a stirring day with you in N.H. It was somewhat so here. We held meetings in most all the companys and I believe that Gilmore was ahead in our Co. K. Harriman stood 24, Gilmore 26, Eastman 12. In Co. D. Gilmore had 40 to 2 for others.

How do you think E.P. Moore went? He voted for Eastman. He has changed a great deal I am sorry to say. He is losing confidence of the Co. officers by talking as he does. We have three loyal men for our company officers.

About my Colt, if you can sell it to a good advantage you may sell him & if the paymaster does come around to pay us take out those is due you & pay for selling him & pay the rest to my wife and her father. I did not want to sell him but I see no prospect of my getting home until my time is up so I have made up my mind to sell him. I know you will do as well as you believe & take out enough to pay for all of your trouble.

We are expecting to leave for Charleston every day. We have been under marching orders for more than a week. We are waiting impatiently for orders to move. I want to go to that hot hole of the Rebel and wipe it out. When we start I shall have a good supply of matches on hand to help burn the place if I live to get there. I will close now sending my regards to yourself & family.

I remain as ever yours &c,

Sergt. Wesley B. Knight
Co. H. 4th Regt.

N.H. Vols.

At 23 acres, the Florence, S.C., prison was one of the largest in the rebel system. It opened in September 1864. Of the 15,000-
18,000 prisoners in six months of operation, 2,802 died. Because of lost records, 2,167 of the dead lie in unknown graves. 
However disappointing Knight found Edward P. Moore's political views, Moore gave his life for his country. He was wounded July 27, 1864, near Petersburg, Va., and died three weeks later.

Knight suffered a similar fate. He was captured May 16, 1864, at Drewry's Bluff near Richmond and died five months later at the Confederate prison in Florence, S.C.

[Thanks to my friend David Morin for the transcription and Knight photo.]

1 comment:

  1. Please contact me at Wesley Knight was my great great grandfather and I am very interested in obtains this letter for my families sake. He actually survived Andersonville before being sent to Florence.